Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015)

When I was a kid, I loved Star Wars. I would correct people at even the slightest misquoting because I had memorized every scene of the films. I probably watched Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, USA 1983) 20 times, and it was my least favorite of the series. Then, Star Wars: Episode 1–The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, USA 1999) happened. I was excited to see the first addition to the series of my lifetime and went to the theater to watch (dragging my parents, my brother, and my sister with me, and I doubt anyone other than my father actually wanted to see it). And within an hour, I never wanted to see another Star Wars film. And I cannot be 100% certain, but I don’t think I’ve even re-watched any of the original trilogy since. George Lucas turned me off of the series at age 14 and it took me until age 30 to give it another chance.

J.J. Abrams has never been one to tread in the type of films I watch. Of his previous four films, the only one I ever watched was Star Trek (USA 2009). Obviously, a lot of people have commented on his presence in both of these series, but what a lot of people have missed is the role his film has played in both franchises. His Star Trek is a reboot of the franchise. It’s saying, “We want to keep making similar things but we need to introduce younger actors, so here!” It’s a film that’s all about keeping fans happy for future films and establishing a new cast–it doesn’t care about inviting new people into the Star Trek tent or telling any interesting stories. For Star Wars, Abrams had a far more difficult task. Not only did he need to keep current fans happy, but he needed to mend fences with them. I wasn’t the only one turned off by The Phantom Menace, and the other two prequels and Lucas’s tinkering with the original films in the “special editions” made matters worse. He had to try to get all of those fans: the ones who say, “Han shot first!” at every opportunity and the ones who embark on long expanses of prose to say, “It’s George Lucas’s vision and we can’t criticize it!” together. And he had to do it with a film set later in the same timeline as what came before. He couldn’t just cast Scott Caan to play Han Solo, make up a minimal story, and be done with it–he had to do something with the earlier characters and situations. It’s a far more difficult task. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Creed” (Ryan Coogler, USA 2015)

Nostalgia can be difficult to use in a film. Making references to earlier films, characters, etc. can be a great nod for older fans but can be empty for newer viewers. And if you’re borrowing too much, the winks and nods turn the film into a rehashing of the past. Look at the Back to the Future films–the second largely plays as a successful sequel, in part because of its nodding to the first film, but the third plays as a film with zero new ideas, because the winks and nods have now taken over.

Creed, as essentially the seventh Rocky film, has plenty of nostalgia to play with. And as much as the series has been a source of humor for its endless series of sequels, it has typically been a series built of its time, one that until its final entry never really cared about its past self. Rocky III includes Mr. T and a cameo from Hulk Hogan but isn’t full of references to the previous two films. Rocky IV‘s closest thing to a winking reference is that Survivor provides the theme song to the training montage again (and it’s very nearly the same song as “Eye of the Tiger”). They go back to some of the same plot points again and again but it’s not to make us laugh at the reference–it’s because they’re simplistic, basic plots that go exactly where makes the most melodramatic sense. Continue reading